As the son of a post-World War II refugee, I have great sympathy for the hundreds of thousands of refugees currently crossing southern Europe into Germany. Displaced by war in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and other places, traveling hundreds of miles on foot, crossing the Mediterranean in precarious boats, confronting angry policemen trying to turn them back, crawling under newly erected barbed wire fences and overcoming bureaucratic stupidity by their sheer persistence, these refugees have demonstrated their determination to attain a better, more humane and peaceful life for themselves and their children. I pray that European leaders find a way to cope with the arrival of this mass of humanity and find compassionate ways to deal them while helping other refugees also en route. However, I must confess I have grave misgivings about how this crisis has been dealt with so far and what lies ahead for Europe and other countries.
Is it not troubling that this refugee invasion involved a collapse of the rule of law in the southern European countries through which the refugees passed? Shouldn’t serious concerns be expressed about public security, health and the growing and substantial economic burden that these refugees pose? Are migrants entitled to choose where they wish to go and where to live without regard to the wishes of host countries? Did the exuberant German welcome of new arrivals and its promise to absorb more than ten times that of any other European country raise refugee expectations to impossible heights? Did Germany’s uncoordinated actions serve only to aggravate her European neighbors who sought to block unwanted migrants passing through their borders? Are we witnessing an event that has the potential to tear apart the sinews of the European Union? What is to be made of the free movement of people in Europe once one country accepts refugees that others do no wish to recognize?
Of course one can make the argument that the aging European population needs rejuvenation and the refugee influx, particularly in Germany, can be seen as a solution to that problem. That is true. What is also true, however, is that no country, indeed, no continent, can realistically absorb all the refugees and displaced persons in the world today. There are simply too many refugees – over 50 million of them in camps in different parts of the world, not to mention the 30 million internally displaced persons in war torn areas of the world. And those numbers are growing. After spending years in these camps, one wonders what refugees still in camps think of how they are being treated and what they should do in view of the experience of those who recently crossed into Europe?
The ongoing Syrian war, after killing 200,000 people, to date has produced four million refugees and some seven million internally displaced persons. The fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) is producing others. On Europe’s eastern border, there is a new Syria in the making, with over 7000 dead and one and a half million internally displaced people in Ukraine on the verge of a humanitarian crisis. One can easily project millions of more refugees fleeing out of these conflicts in the years ahead and they are merely examples of many other conflicts that could produce new migrants destined for Europe in the future.
So what can be done?
There is little doubt that the Adolf Hitlers and Joseph Stalins of our day, men like Bashar al-Assad of Syria, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi of ISIL, Vladimir Putin of Russia and Kim Jong Un of North Korea, will continue to wreak havoc and cause misery at home and abroad without the least compunction. Their actions will continue to preoccupy our leaders and divert our resources away from tackling more basic, longer term global problems like disease, ignorance, poverty, malnutrition, clean air and water, sanitation and the reproductive health of woman. Instead our governments will continue to pour more than $1.7 trillion a year into military expenditures. In the absence of a change in direction, the result will be growing migrations of populations from places of misery to countries of prosperity, peace and security.
While we may not able to able to completely reverse these trends however, we can make some changes for the better. Perhaps in addition to keeping these tyrants at bay, we can change how even 1% of government resources are allocated. Surely that would be better than to abandon all hope. There is a Christian saying that it is better to light one candle than to curse the darkness. If we cannot abolish the darkness, then at least let us light one candle. That is what we can do on the broadest level and with the refugees as well.
To address the refugee crisis specifically, we must recognize that Europe alone cannot solve the global refugee crisis. Indeed, there may not be a complete solution to it at all, at least not in this decade. Recognizing that reality, Europe must reaffirm its right to determine who shall enter its borders and who shall not. Europe must crack down on smugglers and immediately begin turning back boats seeking to illegally cross the Mediterranean. It must seek the help of Turkey and the other coastal states that are the places of embarkation for refugee boats destined for Europe. Since the Arabian Gulf States exhibit no willingness to accept refugees, they need to be persuaded to at least help pay the costs of these coastal countries as they get involved in blocking the outflow of migrants. For those refugees who have already arrived, Europe must gather and screen them for security and health reasons and be ready to return those who are unwanted back to where they came from.
Meanwhile, capitalizing on the new public sympathy for the refugees, much more could and should be done for refugees. For example, a task force of senior immigration officials from all participating countries, including the United States and Canada, could be sent to refugee camps like those in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan to recruit suitable refugees following a rational protocol consisting of attracting those migrants who would most suitably fit into the countries concerned. In view of the long backlog in processing of refugees by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) the process should be sidestepped where it is not working and instead officers should consider how deserving their case is, where the refugee is from, how long a refugee has been displaced, their ability to speak the language of the proposed host county, the existence of family members who can be verified as already present in the host country, sponsorship by the host country’s professional, social, religious, ethnic or cultural groups that have demonstrated a willingness to provide support for the incoming migrants and improvised but credible medical and security clearances. Priority should be given to families, women with children, the educated and skilled workers or those with some sort of special connection to the host country. Such a task force, when accompanied by chartered aircraft to bring the refugees to the host countries, if undertaken on a significant scale and as soon as possible would signal to the refugees that their best chances of gaining immigration would be to apply from the camps where they are located, instead of taking perilous journeys in which thousands lose their lives and many others endure heartbreaking tragedies unworthy of humanity.
Let us hope that Europe’s leaders have the wisdom to come up with an adequate plan like the one outlined here to address these significant issues raised by the refugee crisis now at their door.